The Smokey Bear wildfire prevention campaign—the longest-running public service announcement in U.S. history—was launched during World War II. Contrary to popular myth, it didn’t start with a real-life bear. That came later. Pearl Harbor happened first, in 1941, followed by Japanese subs firing shells into California, which nearly ignited Los Padres National Forest.
Panicked because most firefighters were overseas, the government figured citizens were the best defense against forest fires. Suddenly, wildland blazes were the enemy, and when Smokey debuted in 1944, he became an instant hit—perhaps too big.
Decades of fire suppression, whether the fire was human-caused or not, has led to unhealthy forests primed for catastrophic burns. Which, ironically, has made Smokey’s message even more vital today. Here’s a breakdown of the anti-fire zealot’s long history.
After using the cast from Bambi in a fire-prevention campaign, the Forest Service hires artist Albert Staehle to design its own mascot: a bear in a ranger’s hat.
The first real-life Smokey is found in New Mexico. After 30 firefighters survive a massive blaze by lying facedown in a rockslide, they spot a black bear cub in a charred tree and rescue it. The bear, dubbed Smokey, lived at the National Zoo until his death in 1976; he was buried at his namesake park in Capitan, New Mexico.
Songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins write a tribute that backfires: For rhythm, they refer to him as “Smokey the Bear.” The confusion ensues today.
While living at the National Zoo, real-life Smokey gets so many letters that the Postal Service gives him his own zip code: 20252.
Smokey’s success inspires the hatching of Woodsy Owl and his original slogan: “Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute.”
Snoopy celebrates Smokey’s 50th birthday. Other endorsers have included Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, and the Grateful Dead.
The catchphrase “Only you can prevent forest fires” is changed to “wildfires” to clarify that not all burns are bad.
A yearlong celebration includes a Stephen Colbert PSA and dozens of events, like a November broadcast from Smokey Bear Historical Park, in Capitan, New Mexico.
Smokey by the Numbers:
- 27,375 and Counting: Number of days of the longest public service campaign in U.S. history
- $1.6 Billion: Value of advertising time and space donated for the campaign
- 96%: The percentage of Americans who recognize Smokey, according to the AdCouncil
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